Destiny’s child: Philippines’ Robredo refuses to rule out presidency just yet

Philippines Vice President Leni Robredo. (Reuters/File)
Updated 22 September 2019

Destiny’s child: Philippines’ Robredo refuses to rule out presidency just yet

  • In an exclusive interview with Arab News, the vice president talks about her frosty relationship with Duterte and the need to ensure OFW rights

MANILA: She is one of his most vocal critics, while he never misses an opportunity to mock her in public speeches across the Philippines.

But when it comes to upholding the sanctity of their office, both President Rodrigo Duterte and Vice President Leni Robredo ensure they bring a finely scripted civility to the table.

“I do not meet him often. I do not get invited to functions in the presidential palace, but I get invited to military events. I try as much as I can to attend ... and I see the president there. Our meetings have always been cordial. The president has been very civil when we see each other,” Robredo said in an exclusive interview with Arab News in Manila.

Robredo was elected separately to Duterte and was not his running mate. Amid rumors that she is the obvious choice to take on the mantle once Duterte finishes his term, Robredo says that she is not ready to rule out the idea just yet.

“I do not rule it out completely only because of what happened during the last two elections where I ruled out running for Congress and I ruled out running for the vice-presidency, and I had to eat my words after that,” she said, adding that as far as the Philippines is concerned, it’s all about “destiny.”

“Our history has shown that a lot of people have aspired for the presidency, but have not been successful. And we have had a lot of presidents who won the elections where they had not prepared as much as the other candidates. It is something that will be given to you if it is really meant for you. So there is no point in preparing for it at this point,” she said.

 

In recent years, Robredo and Duterte have had a frosty relationship over issues ranging from the government’s controversial war on drugs to the Philippines ties with China.

 

Recently, Robredo called out Duterte for his “shoot, but don’t kill” orders.

The president made his comments on Thursday during the inauguration of the Bataan government center and business hub dubbed “The Bunker,” urging Filipinos to “shoot but not kill” public officials who were demanding money in exchange for their services and vowing to defend any person who attacked a corrupt official.

The statement drew flak from several rights organizations and, most significantly, from the vice president herself.

“I do not agree with killings per se, whether they are against drug addicts or corrupt officials. We have laws; we have the judicial system, and we should make sure that we have a strong judicial system, safe from political intrusion and corruption,” she said.

Robredo also explained why she has been at loggerheads with Duterte over his stance on the South China Sea.

Last week, she described as “reckless” his suggestion that he would consider bypassing an arbitration ruling — in favor of the Philippines — over a territorial dispute with China in order to finalize an energy pact with Beijing.

“I have always been vocal about statements by the president, which may be interpreted in a manner that would be against the constitution. It has been the reason of some friction between us. There has been a lot of confusion as far as the seriousness of the president’s remarks is concerned. Whenever he makes controversial statements, some officials around him try to correct those statements,” she said, adding that her retorts have “been a source of criticism from many of the president’s supporters.”

Adding to their constant tug-of-war is the issue of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) and sending manpower to countries in the Middle East.

The issue intensified with the murder of 29-year-old Joanna Demafelis, whose body was found stuffed in a freezer in Kuwait last year. A Syrian woman, one of Demafelis’ employers, was found guilty of her murder this month.

Following the incident, the Philippines placed a ban on sending workers to Kuwait.

Duterte lifted the ban after Demafelis’ killer was tried, and there have been efforts to negotiate the terms and conditions of labor contracts by both the countries.

“The issues in Kuwait became a little too unbearable and we entered into a memorandum of agreement last year ... it was a reaction to many of the complaints that overseas Filipinos in Kuwait have. Some say that their passports are being confiscated by employers as soon as they reach Kuwait, and there are complaints about the working conditions, hours, etc,” Robredo said.

However, the agreement was a “short-term” initiative and a more formal bilateral agreement would have been “better in the sense that both countries will be made accountable,” she said.

“This is our desire not just in Kuwait, but also in many other parts of the Middle East, and in Saudi Arabia for example, where most of our Filipino workers are. There has been a UN convention on the protection of the rights of overseas workers — migrant workers — but, unfortunately, most of the countries hosting our migrant workers are not signatories to that convention yet,” she said.

Robredo described the agreement a “work in progress,” saying “it is something that we have been working on for several years.”

The Philippines signed two agreements with Saudi Arabia — the first in 2015, and another two years later —  on labor contracts and recruitment.

According to the Philippines Statistics Authority, the Kingdom continued to be the top destination for OFWs until May this year, with an estimated 2.3 million Filipinos working there.

Remittances from the period totalled P235.9 billion ($4.5 billion), up from P205.2 billion a year earlier.

“It is our desire that the countries hosting our migrant workers will be signatories to the UN convention because at the very least, the basic rights of our workers will be protected. It is something that not just our Foreign Affairs Department is working on, but our Labor Department as well,” she said, adding that this and a few other issues are subjects on which she and the president agree.

In June this year, when both Robredo and Duterte entered the final stretch of their six-year terms, the vice president said that she wanted a “better working relationship” with the president.

It is a sentiment that she voiced strongly while talking to Arab News as well.

“I think if our meetings are to be the gauge of our relationship, we are OK. It is just that there have been a lot of side remarks, issues and criticisms outside of our meetings that I think complicates the relationship,” she said.


Top diplomat implicates Trump in explosive impeachment testimony

Updated 21 November 2019

Top diplomat implicates Trump in explosive impeachment testimony

  • Sondland said Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani led the effort at Trump’s direction to pressure Ukraine President Volodymr Zelensky
  • Trump said he barely knew Sondland and had not spoken to him much

WASHINGTON: A senior US diplomat directly implicated President Donald Trump Wednesday in a scheme to force Ukraine to probe a political rival, in bombshell testimony to a televised impeachment hearing.
Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, told lawmakers he followed the president’s orders in seeking a “quid pro quo” deal for Ukraine to investigate Democrat Joe Biden in exchange for a White House summit.
Sondland said Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani led the effort at Trump’s direction to pressure Ukraine President Volodymr Zelensky for the investigation and that top officials in the White House and State Department knew about it.
The unexpectedly damning testimony drew a sharp backlash from Trump who tweeted: “This Witch Hunt must end NOW. So bad for our Country!.”
Trump said he barely knew Sondland and had not spoken to him much, despite the senior diplomat having donated $1 million to his inauguration and testifying that he had spoken to the president some 20 times while ambassador.
Democrats said Sondland’s seven hours of testimony before the House Intelligence Committee had bolstered their case for Trump’s impeachment for what they have labeled “extortion.”
“Today’s testimony is among the most significant evidence to date,” said committee chairman Adam Schiff.
“It goes right to the heart of the issue of bribery as well as other potential high crimes or misdemeanors.”
A succession of Democrats hoping to win the nomination to take on Trump in next year’s election also said the testimony had strengthened the case for impeachment as the issue dominated the opening exchanges in their latest televised primary debate.
Sondland said Trump directed him and two other senior diplomats to work with Giuliani.
From early in the year, Giuliani mounted a pressure campaign on Zelensky’s government to investigate Biden over his son Hunter’s ties to a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, and to probe a conspiracy theory espoused by Trump that Ukraine helped Democrats against him in 2016. Biden is one of the favorites to challenge Trump in next year’s presidential election.
“Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing the investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma,” Sondland told the panel.
“Mr Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky.”
Far from being a “rogue” operation outside normal US diplomatic channels, Sondland told the hearing top officials — including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — were kept constantly informed.
“We followed the president’s orders,” he said.
Like Trump a multimillionaire developer with a chain of high-end hotels, Sondland, who wore a $55,000 Breguet white gold watch to the hearing, fended off pressure from both Democrats and Republicans.
He had not implicated the president in earlier private testimony, when he answered scores of questions by saying he could “not remember.”
But subsequent testimony by other witnesses which had further implicated him in the Ukraine pressure scheme had jolted his memory, he said on Wednesday.
While he confirmed the linkage between the investigations and a White House meeting between Zelensky and Trump, he would not attest to allegations that Trump froze $391 million in aid as well to Ukraine to add pressure on Ukraine.
“I never heard from President Trump that aid was conditioned on an announcement” of the investigations, he said, contradicting testimony from two other diplomats.
In separate testimony, a Pentagon official appeared to undermine a key Republican defense in the impeachment battle, that Kiev did not even know until late August or even September about the July 18 aid freeze, rendering moot Democrats’ allegations that Trump had extorted Ukraine.
Laura Cooper, the Pentagon official in charge of Ukraine affairs, said Kiev voiced concern over a holdup in aid on July 25.
That was the same day that Trump told Zelensky in a phone call that he wanted a favor, asking for investigations into Biden specifically and the 2016 conspiracy theory.
“The Ukrainian embassy staff asked, ‘What is going on with Ukrainian security assistance?” she told the committee.
At the White House, Trump denied making the demand of Zelensky, citing Sondland’s own recall of their September 9 phone call on the Ukraine issue.
Reading from large-print notes, he said that he told Sonderland: “I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing.”
“If this were a prizefight, they’d stop it!” he said of the inquiry.
Speaking at the Democrats’ debate, Biden dodged a question on the role of his son but said the testimony had shown that “Donald Trump doesn’t want me to be the nominee.”
And Bernie Sanders, another of the frontrunners for the nomination, said Trump had been shown to be “not only a pathological liar” but also “the most corrupt president in the modern history of America.”